Photogenic spaces and objects begging for Instagram coverage run the gamut from storefronts to urban pop-ups, from diner tables to kitschy bathrooms. This summer, in Tokyo, the trend was taken to its natural extreme when a group of Japanese ultra-technologists, “teamLab,” opened the Mori Building Digital Art Museum.

Their hope is that it will be the most Instagrammable space in Japan.

The world’s first all-digital museum is set in Odaiba, Tokyo. The 107,000 square foot venue is housed in a grey building so nondescript that this correspondent walked past it several times. Surely the entrance to a reputedly spectacular museum could not be on the other side of an industrial-looking, multi-storey parking lot?

A lot more than the entrance is unusual. As well as its lack of a grand facade and a complete absence of eye-catching architecture, the Mori Building Digital Art Museum houses no Japanese artifacts and teaches no history. In fact, there is nothing uniquely Japanese about the museum, which is located a long way from Tokyo’s top tourist attractions.

Merging marketing strategy and museum content into a single whole

The museum is the product of teamLab, the Japanese interdisciplinary art collective behind groundbreaking exhibits such as Futureworld in Singapore and Massless in Helsinki. Since the Tokyo Digital Art Museum’s opening on June 21 this year, their JPY 3,200 (USD 28.87) entrance passes have sold out every day. Two months later after it first opened, there is still a two-week wait for the next available ticket.

What draws the visitors, day after day, are 50 “borderless” made-for-Instagram artworks, divided into five distinct zones. The exhibits are powered by 470 Epson projectors and 520 computers.

The result is as much a visual splendor as it is a technological marvel. Combining marketing strategy and content production, it is designed to prove that, if institutions fashion themselves to look appealing on social media, the foot traffic (and online exposure) will flow.

Even the museum tea shop includes digital visual affects inside your cup. Photo: teamLab
Even the museum tea shop includes digital visual effects inside your cup. Photo: teamLab

teamLab’s design of the “borderless” museum shows a deep understanding of the factors that can grant a space cult social media status: artsy without being stuffy or difficult; varied exhibits that evolve with the audience; and freedom of interaction within the exhibits. The overall concept is that art cannot be fully experienced when viewed from a distance, behind velvet rope barriers, or in glass boxes; it has to invite people to become a part of it, and therefore become part of the shot.

The museum is built for people to have fun, with legs up in the air or hands outstretched, sliding around, bouncing on balls and generally looking happy. It is, quite literally, an Instagram playground.

Let’s venture inside…  

In one exhibit entitled “Boing Boing Universe,” visitors are invited to bounce on a flexible, galaxy-colored surface that stretches across the floor of the room. As they jump, stardust collects around the spots on the floor, forming new stars and nebulas that grow with each jumping movement. The floor transforms into an amorphous hue of colored balls and sparkles until, at the end of each timed jump session, the heaviest stars become black holes, swallowing up everything around them – and resetting the surface for the next batch of visitors.

Visitors navigate through a digital universe of stars and black holes at the Nori Building Digital Art Museum in Tokyo. Photo: teamLab
Visitors navigate through a digital universe of stars and black holes at the Mori Building Digital Art Museum. Photo: teamLab

One of the biggest installations is “High Mountains and Deep Valleys.” This is a three-dimensional space with varying heights and inclines. As you traverse the space, flowers bloom by your feet, frogs leap around you, and water splashes with your footsteps. When enough people are standing on an area teeming with flowers, butterflies will come and flutter around, amplifying the interactive, borderless nature of the ecosystem. Visitors are also encouraged to draw their own creations, which then are projected onto the walls and floors of the landscape.

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Visitors are encouraged to draw their own designs – which are then fed into the system, digitized, and added to the exhibit. Photo: teamLab
Total digital immersion is on tap in Tokyo's latest - and most innovative - museum. Photo: teamLab
Total digital immersion is on tap in Tokyo’s latest – and most innovative – museum. Photo: teamLab

In a sector entitled “Aerial Climbing through a Flock of Colored Birds,” participants navigate through a maze while hanging in mid-air on planks and ropes. Around them, flocks of birds fly on the walls, programmed to avoid people. Each visitor wears a badge of a certain color; when birds approach them, the birds turn the color of the wearer’s badge. The whole space changes colors according to the people in the space, and is rendered in real time according to a computer program. The work is a process of constant change; no color pattern will ever be repeated or seen again.

At the Nori Building Digital Art Museum in Tokyo, visitors navigate through a digital landscape. Photo; teamLab
At the Mori Building Digital Art Museum in Tokyo, visitors navigate through a cyber dreamscape. Photo; teamLab

In the Tea Room, even the beverages become a setting for Instagram wonders. The café serves cups of Japanese green tea that come pre-infused with a multicolour digital flower projection – which swivels and blooms in your cup. How about that for a neo- Japanese tea ceremony?

A cup of quintessentially Japanese green tea - specifically brewed for Instagram posting. Photo: teamLab
A cup of quintessentially Japanese green tea – specifically brewed for Instagram posting. Photo: teamLab

Japan, currently surfing an unprecedented tourism boom that is being marketed heavily in advance of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, is noted worldwide for its strong heritage and traditions. Neither of which are immediately discernible in the museum. However, teamLab insists that the space is inherently Japanese in that it perceives no boundary between human and nature.

Moreover, Japan’s love affair with color photography is a long one. The seamless interactive exhibits hinting at traditional Japanese experiences like tea rooms and blooming pink flowers, but exhibiting them as digital spectacles, demand to be captured in social media posts. While traditional museums around the world often post signs that forbid photography, Akane, a teamLab staff member, encouraged me, “take lots of photos, please!”

And why not? I wanted to play and feel happy and free in a space that is carefully conceived as a place for borderless freedom. Akane’s encouragement reminded me that this is a space that is wonderful in person, but is designed to grow online. Adventurous, colorful tangles on the rope course or high jumps on the “Boing Boing Universe” are custom-designed ploys to market the space to the Instagram masses.

The Internet-savvy marketing drive is working. The hashtag #teamLabBorderless has notched up 36,600 posts on Instagram, all produced by visitors eager to share with the rest of the world photos of themselves at the museum.

Paying visitors to the Digital Art Museum are contentedly and virally promoting the museum’s reach across the social media universe.